Gary Stanley Becker Crime and Punishment

Gary Stanley Becker Crime, Gary Stanley Becker Punishment

Becker's analysis of time allocation is by no means confined to legal activities; it includes various forms of crime. In a seminal paper (Becker, 1968) it was argued that crime is not an aberration outside the scope of rational analysis, but rather the predictable outcome of opportunities for gain.

He argues that a decision to engage in illegal activity is the outcome of an individualistic calculus; benefits and costs (both monetary and non-monetary) are weighed up, and the individual makes a decision which reflects the expected balance of them. One way to conceptualise decisions of this kind is as a rather special kind of investment activity. Many of the crucial decision variables-probability of apprehension and conviction, likely punishment, alternative earnings possibilities in legitimate occupations - are empirically observable, and hence their effect on observed crime rates can in principle be tested. As usual Becker's contribution has mainly been to analyse and suggest possibilities for hypothesis testing, but his graduate students and other interested economists have been quick to pick up the challenge. In the last decade a good deal of evidence has been accumulated to support the plausibility of Becker's contention that criminal behaviour responds to changes in costs and benefits.

Unusually for Becker, the argument is couched throughout in normative terms. The model of criminal behaviour put forward is devised to be used in conjunction with cost functions for law enforcement and a simple social welfare function in order to generate conclusions about the optimal levels of policy variables such as the extent of enforcement, type of punishment and perhaps even what should be a crime. Becker is not, however, arguing for major policy changes. Given the behavioural re­sponses to legal and illegal incentives which he discerns, and given the costs and benefits of enforcement and punishment programmes, he suspects that the authorities, at least in the USA, get things roughly right - perhaps a surprising conclusion, given his scepticism of the efficacy of government action in other spheres

There seem to be two main weaknesses to Becker's arguments. The first is the assumption of social homogeneity implicit in the notion of a social welfare function, when it is widely held (not least among economists) that some groups of the population have greater political power than others, leading to legislation and enforcement patterns which reflect the influence of sectional interests. Secondly, it is difficult not to feel that Becker's enthusiasm for the economic approach does tend at times to run away with him. Although differences in incomes and assets, alternative earnings possibilities, probabilities of conviction and so forth are much more important in determining behaviour than they are often given credit for, there are surely variations in attitudes and degrees of honesty which affect the propensity to commit crimes even among individuals facing similar economic circumstances. While Becker would accept this, by implication he regards them as not particularly significant, possibly assuming that such variations in 'tastes' are randomly distributed.

Nevertheless, Becker's achievement is substantial. This one paper has stimulated a mushrooming literature on the economics of crime which it would be foolish for criminologists to ignore. The debate about deterrence, for instance, has been raised to a new level of sophistication by the introduction of econometric techniques by followers of Becker such as Isaac Ehrlich.